Smoke and Jeers

Million Marijuana March Protests NYC's Record-High Pot Arrests

It's not every day that hundreds of people light up joints in full view of dozens of unsmiling police officers. Such was the scene at the annual Million Marijuana March on May 1 as weed advocates converged at the southwest corner of Washington Square Park. There, the jubilant crowd— the police claim it was 4000 people while organizers say 20,000— began rehearsing their favorite chant: "We smoke pot and we like it a lot!"

The procession ambled down Broadway to Battery Park, where hippie chicks in tie-dyed skirts twirled to reggae beats and FUBU-clad teenage boys did a brisk business selling Phillies blunts for $1 each. White kids from SUNY­New Paltz and b-boys from East New York mingled freely while gray-haired hippies ran around overseeing the event, which was led by Dana Beal, the 52-year-old former Yippie leader who has organized this march since 1973.

The point of the rally, Beal says, is to repair marijuana's reputation. "They think this is about legalizing pot," he says. "It's not. It's about separating pot from hard drugs. We're doing it by creating separation within the drug culture itself through education. Pot smokers are no longer on a conveyor belt to being junkies. Eighty-six percent of pot smokers do not do any other drug. The majority believes marijuana is different. They may have tried other drugs, but they don't like them." (According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, about two-thirds of marijuana smokers do not use other drugs.)

The marchers' favorite target was Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose crackdown on marijuana has led to a record number of arrests. One of every 10 arrests made last year by the NYPD was for a marijuana offense, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. The NYPD made 43,041 arrests last year for pot offenses— nearly 10 times as many as in 1992. Of the 1998 arrests, 34,319 were for possession, only 8722 for sales. This is a dramatic shift from a few years ago, when most pot arrests were for dealing. Now mere possession can lead to a night or two in jail.

The crackdown has hit young black and Hispanic New Yorkers the hardest. Almost 85 percent of people arrested for pot possession are Hispanic or black. Last year there were 23,983 arrests of blacks and 12,803 of Hispanics for marijuana offenses— and only 5816 arrests of whites. Most of those arrested for pot possession were less than 24 years old. Between 1992 and 1998, the number of 16-to-20-year-olds arrested for possessing weed rocketed from 379 to 12,507.

At the Million Marijuana March, demonstrators swapped tales of cops catching them smoking on the corner or discovering a tiny bag of weed during a stop-and-frisk. Steve Bloom, an editor at High Times, climbed onstage at Battery Park and shouted, "How many of you out there have been arrested for marijuana by Giuliani's narcs?" More than 100 hands shot up.

Louis, a 16-year-old who declined to reveal his last name, came to the Million Marijuana March with a crew of friends from his Bronx neighborhood. Louis said he too had been arrested recently for smoking marijuana— in front of his 12th-floor apartment. "I was mad," says Louis. "That's my house. I can smoke in front of my door."

Apparently not. And some pot smokers discovered that the march itself was no haven. Heidi, a 23-year-old receptionist from Connecticut, showed up with a homemade sign proclaiming "Stop All Cannabis Arrests." But she says the undercover cops who ran past her did not heed it as they confronted two fellow protesters. "It was horrible," she says. "We heard the smack of the body against the building." Throughout the day, undercover police officers slipped into the crowd and arrested demonstrators. According to Detective Robert Samuel, an NYPD spokesperson, cops made 105 arrests at the march for pot possession (and none for sales).

As the parade passed City Hall, there were plenty of anti-Giuliani jeers. One hundred fifty cardboard signs urging "Arrest Giuliani" floated above the crowd. Organizers hoped the event would send a message to the mayor. "What we're nervous about is that he wants to take it national," says Beal. "His policy is insane. He's doing it for a show— to run for public office."

New York City's marijuana protest was one of 30 similar events held around the world on May 1. Speakers at a London rally, which drew more than 5000 people, railed against Giuliani's pot policies. One thousand protesters danced in the streets of Prague. Inmates at Ohio's Cuyahoga County Jail held up signs spelling W-E-E-D as 800 pro-pot marchers passed by. And at a 150-person rally in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the only arrests were of two drunks who were hassling the pot smokers.

Not everyone celebrated the Million Marijuana March, however. "It's absolutely outrageous that people think they should be able to go into the park and smoke marijuana, which is illegal," says Bob O'Sullivan, co-chair of Parents for Playgrounds, which sponsored Family Day in Washington Square Park at the same time pot smokers gathered there. About the pot protesters who lingered around the Family Day petting zoo, O'Sullivan says, "They were abusing people— shouting obscenities at mothers and little kids. People blocked the exhibits and started smoking marijuana and blowing it on people. The leaders should be ashamed because they have this illiterate, ill-bred group."

As the pot party moved to Battery Park and began to peter out, Jessica Hoff, 20, insisted she was not sleepy despite waking before 4 a.m. to board a bus in York, Pennsylvania. Hoff and her friend, Bill Keslar, a 21-year-old student at Penn State, made it through the march without getting arrested. "I didn't smoke anything all day and I'm having great fun," says Hoff. Why didn't she and Bill get high? "We can't smoke," she explains. "We're on probation."

Research assistance: Hillary Chute

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